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Hawker Centers: Singapore’s Living Heritage Transcript

Chris This is Home on the Dot. I’m Chris McMorran. On 17th December 2020, at the end of this otherwise depressing year, Singapore receives some welcomed news. Singapore’s Hawker Culture was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. That’s quite a mouthful. This new global level of recognition by UNESCO should mean more support of Singapore’s hawkers to both honor their past and help them continue into the future. 

Home on the Dot listeners may recall that we did an episode on Hawker Centers back in 2018 in season 1. In that episode called A Nation’s Dining Room, Raudhah shared her relationship with Hawker Centers and she interviewed some young Hawkpreneurs carrying on the hawker trade through innovative recipes and methods. 

In honor of recognition by UNESCO, we’re going to run that episode again this week. But before we do that, I wanted to share the reaction of one of my colleagues at the National University of Singapore. Dr. Hamzah Muzaini is Assistant Professor in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies. He is a cultural and historical geographer and an expert on questions of heritage, memory and remembrance, particularly in Singapore. 

So he’s the perfect person to turn to to help better understand what this UNESCO designation means and what it overlooks.

Chris Hamzah, thank you for joining me today. It’s great to see you. So I want to hear what’s your initial reaction to this news from UNESCO?

Hamzah Well I think that as it’s important, I’m proud of course that we get this kind of global recognition because I think in some ways this kind of designation would also help in terms of preserving what we have, right? So, hopefully, with such a recognition you can actually get more support for the very thing that we’re trying to preserve here. So in that sense, I think it is helpful and I think of course the people who are actually involved in this designation would also be very happy that whatever that they’re doing all this time is essentially being recognized not only by Singaporeans but also by the world at large.

Chris In a Facebook post, you mentioned two aspects in particular about Hawkers culture that are missing from this UNESCO designation. The first is that hawking food has a long history that actually began with selling food on roadsides instead of the purpose build kind of permanent centers that exist today. Can you tell me more about that?

Hamzah When we think about the hawker culture in Singapore, we sometimes do tend to have a certain idea of what hawker culture is and we forget that, that particular cultural product has actually evolved over time. Now when we talk about hawker culture in Singapore, in the past they used to be a different kind of hawker culture where people were just selling food on the street, and in some ways, the hawker culture that UNESCO has actually recognized today may be said to be the very thing that destroyed that particular earlier iteration of what hawker culture is in Singapore. So, I hope that even as we are happy remembering hawker culture as it is today, that we will not forget what it was like before and how it became the whole culture that we are all so proud of in Singapore today. 

Chris The other point you brought up in your Facebook post that I think really gets overlooked is that although this UNESCO designation is about hawker culture and food, hawking actually involves so much more than that.

Hamzah Yeah. Okay, well firstly, the hawker culture is not just about food. I mean, the first implication of that is that we need to focus on the word ‘culture’ here, right? So when you talk about culture, we’re not just talking about the food, but we are also talking about the way which people eat, the way in which people produce food. So, we’re talking about the stories of these hawkers, how they became hawkers in the first place and also the different kinds of, you know, somewhat eccentric ways in which Singaporeans actually, you know, encountered their food at a hawker centre. So, all these things are important right, because they do sort of like are the very tangible elements that give rise to this idea that our hawker center culture is or our hawker culture is something that’s important for us to preserve. So, it really gives rise to this whole discourse of multi-racialism discourse of community, social gathering so and so forth. 

But the other implication of the statement that hawker culture is not just about food is that we do tend to associate hawking with just food here, but we should not forget the fact that hawking can also be of other things right? So in Singapore, you do have people who actually hawk antiques, so second-hand goods. You could actually have people who are hawking services on the streets and all these things also then becomes very important for us to consider, as part of our everyday heritage and when we think about hawker culture we should also keep in mind that even as the UNESCO designation has allowed us to in some ways preserve our eating culture, there are other kinds of hawking cultures in Singapore that needs support as well.

Chris Right, so in a way the UNESCO idea or what it’s recognizing, as far as hawker culture is concerned is very broad because it’s not just the food, it’s also the foodways. It’s the apprenticeships. It’s the ways that food is eaten in an outdoor shared setting. It’s the setting up of stalls of multiple national, I guess, cuisine origins in one space, but at the same time, it’s narrow in that it doesn’t include the hawking of shoe fixers, of flowers sellers and other things like that. Is that what you’re saying?

Hamzah Yes, exactly. So, I think all these other different kinds of hawking culture should also be given, not only just attention but also support. 

Chris Wow, it’s really interesting. Okay, what’s your favorite Hawker Center and what’s your go-to dish?

Hamzah Well, I’m a regular patron of Hawker Centers. So it is my go-to place. Almost every morning where I can get my prata and the bustle of the hawker centers. It doesn’t really matter which hawker center it is. It just does give me that sense of being a Singaporean.

Chris So, if you had a visitor from overseas who came and you had only one evening to take them somewhere and to order them one dish, what would it be?

Hamzah [Laughs] Good question. I think that for visitors coming to Singapore for the first time especially from the West, they would find a visit to any Hawker Center either a feast or a shock to their senses, perhaps even both. But I’ll probably take them to Newton Food Center because many of them would have watched Crazy Rich Asians and the hawker scene in it that was filmed at Newton. So, they may want to experience first-hand where they were only able to see visually on the screen. I think that would be really interesting for them. 

Chris Right, that’s the Hawker Center featured as soon as Rachel and Nick arrive in Singapore right, straight from the airport. Okay, final question. Earlier you mentioned that you visit a hawker center almost daily. Do you have a favorite stall or an uncle or an auntie you see regularly?

Hamzah Oh, yes, definitely. When I go down to my local hawker center, I would always go to the same shop to get my prata and I don’t even have to say anything. She basically just sees my face and then just puts it together and then give it to me, straight. So it’s… Kind of nice to have that kind of familiarity within the hawker center where you know, they actually know me. 

 Chris So comfortable. An extension of home! Alright, well… Hamzah, thanks so much for taking your time today. I really appreciate it during this break and in this otherwise very strange year of 2020 to share your thoughts on UNESCO’s recent listing of Singapore’s Hawker Culture on its list of intangible cultural heritage. You’re really the expert on this so thanks for sharing with us

Hamzah It’s my pleasure. Thanks a lot Chris.

Chris And now, here’s our hawker culture episode from 2018. 

A few weeks ago I rode across the country for a $5 plate of rice.

That might sound insane to someone unfamiliar with Singapore, but the trip took less than an hour by train. Plus, it’s practically a national pastime to travel far and wide to a public food center, or hawker, that serves the best roti prata, chicken rice, or fish ball soup with noodles.

Hawker centers are chaotic, noisy, visually stimulating open-air food courts. Customers and stall owners shout orders in different languages and everyone struggles to be heard over the cacophony of clanging dishes, squeaky fans, dinging bells, and squawking birds.

Each stall is unique, with owners specialising in only a handful of dishes, often family recipes passed down through the generations. The stalls are tiny workplaces, with two and sometimes three people squeezed into a few square feet of windowless space. They twirl around each other in an elegant dance: taking orders, making change, tossing ingredients into a wok, and serving freshly-cooked meals in a matter of minutes. The owner works before your eyes, labouring in the heat to get the flavor just right, with the sole aim of satisfying you and the dozen people queuing behind you – day in and day out.

On this particular day, Raudhah, an NUS student, invited me to one of her favorites: the Bedok Food Center. Although she doesn’t live nearby, she told me she’s a regular, and the place is so familiar it feels like home. I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore and you’re listening to Home on the Dot. This podcast explores the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students. So much of everyday life occurs out in public at these food courts that at times they feel like the nation’s dining room. In this episode, Raudhah explores what the hawker center means to Singapore and Singaporeans, and how that is changing.

Stay tuned….

Raudhah It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m off to visit my grandparents. I look forward to seeing them every few weeks. But before we get there, we need to eat lunch. Luckily, they live near one of my family’s favorite food spots: the Bedok Food Center.

As I approach, the hawker beams at me. I’m a familiar face, and he already knows my order. This hawker center isn’t near where I live. It’s always bustling, noisy, crowded, and sometimes downright uncomfortable for someone who prefers the solitude of her room. Yet, it feels like home to me. There is something about the familiarity of the flavors and the faces that draws me back and gives me comfort.

Singapore is famous for its diversity of food and people. Hawker centers serve this diversity on a plate. During my short visit to Bedok Food Center, I had a cup of sugarcane juice from a Chinese stall; a plate of Nasi Goreng Pattaya from an Indian stall, and a few pieces of “pisang goreng” (or fried banana) from a Malay stall.  With each stall selling different ethnic cuisine and occupying an equal amount of space, it seems to represent not only the diversity of races in Singapore but also the harmony of these races living together.

Geographer David Morley once wrote that “ a sense of national belonging is often inscribed in the taken-for-granted practices of everyday life”. This kind of national belonging contrasts the more serious symbols and monuments of the nation like war memorials, national anthems, and flags. For young people like me,  everyday activities like riding the MRT and eating at hawker centers are just as important in connecting me to the nation.

Singaporeans living overseas often yearn for their hawker favorites. The government acknowledges this. Every year it reaches out to some of the thousands of Singaporeans living overseas through Singapore Day. Here’s Minister Teo Chee Hean talking about the importance of Singapore Day overseas and celebrating the Singaporean identity in 2017 from a Youtube video.

Minister Teo Chee Hean So we have Singaporeans all over the world, and we gather them together so that we can celebrate all that’s Singaporean.

Raudhah This celebration held in foreign cities like New York, London, and Beijing, features Singaporean celebrities as well as comfort food found in hawker centers. In fact, the government flies in some of the country’s most-celebrated hawkers to feed the crowds.

Singaporean #1 I think it’s… interacting with other Singaporeans and obviously trying out the food that we missed.

In recent years, the hawker trade has been seen as heritage worth preserving. In fact, several TV programmes, with titles like Buzzing Hawkers, are shedding light on the life of hawkers and documenting their passion. However, as incomes and education levels continue to rise in Singapore, the hawker trade is under threat of extinction. By all accounts, it’s a tough job. Who wants to wake at 4 every morning and spend the day standing over an open flame in a cramped space, especially when you could work in an air-conditioned office?

In fact, some young people do. The hawker trade isn’t going to die out just yet.

Meet Joey, a third-year Global Studies major who sees the value of the hawker trade. We chatted over a cup of iced Milo after school. He told me how he got interested in the food business.

Joey I always grew up cooking at home with my mother. That was a way for me to escape doing my studies.  I figured out if I didn’t help my mum, it would give her the space to nag at me and ask me about my work. If I chose to help her with cooking, she stopped asking me once I started helping, so I helped her a lot in the kitchen, yeah [laughs]. And that got me interested in cooking. And I realised there was about… And then people in my family started to pass away, and then I started to think to myself what is… My mother would one day pass away as well so I said “what are the memories that I would cherish most with her after she passes away?”. I would say it’s the memories we spend cooking together. I mean, there were some times where, I mean, she would cook in a certain way that I didn’t like or I would do things she didn’t like and we would get into arguments about food but at the end of the day, that was where I feel our bonds really developed, in the kitchen.

Raudhah His passion for cooking motivated him to work in a professional kitchen which sells Peranakan cuisine. However, he was drawn into the hawker trade by his friends, who run a stall at Maxwell Food Center located in downtown Singapore.

Joey The primary reason why I stayed was because I wanted to challenge this, you know, this bias that I think society has on hawkers, the idea of hawkers. Yes, it’s true that it’s grimy, it’s hot and stuff, you know, that only people from like the lower social-economic classes will be participating in this. To me, I thought that was very strange because I know that, I mean after being there for three months, I know that some people make a lot of money, more than people who are working white-collar jobs. So, that to me got me thinking about, you know, what some people say in society or what the adults say at that time may not always or may not necessarily be true. That’s why I chose to pursue this kind of, this line of work, at least for now.  I think this is the beautiful part of working in a hawker, you get to meet and know your customers. And then from there, you adapt or, you know, just see their feedback.

Raudhah I asked Joey about how hawker centers are different from restaurants.

Joey I feel like the camaraderie is much stronger maybe in a hawker center because, you know, it’s a small space. Like can you imagine working in Maxwell? There was one point where there were four people inside, me and three others – me, my two friends and maybe another auntie in that small space. We can barely move. But… It’s that time where it’s so hot, it’s so grimy, everyone just grinding in that place trying to make our customers happy. I would say, you know, these are like the main differences.

You know, restaurants have their signature dishes and all. Hawker centers, they specialise by… On the level of the dish. So, to me, the hawker centre is beautiful because to me, it’s just… What do you call it… Like an aggregation or a what do you call it, you just gather all the experts or specialists in certain dishes in one small area and the kind of variety that is available to them at this place, I think it’s just… It’s beautiful and is quite unique to us.

Raudhah Joey explained to me that the hawker tradition is also not fading away as we would think. In fact, he explained that there could be a new phenomenon shaping the hawker trade instead.

Joey I wouldn’t say that the hawker tradition is something that can easily disappear. Of course, there’s this problem or there’s this worry that old hawkers are not being replaced at a sustainable rate. But at the same time, I think there are people like myself, there’s a whole new wave of hawkerpreneurs. The newspaper likes to highlight these people.  Instead of saying…  Yes, it’s true that the old hawkers will be disappearing, like how old nurses will disappear, and old anything will disappear. There will be a new wave of hawkers, and like hawkerpreneurs if you want to call them that way, yeah who will see the opportunity, who cannot afford the expensive rent or the kind of service that restaurants need to cater. And they might have a brilliant idea and this is also low capital investments.

Raudhah Young people like Joey are turning to the hawker trade because it provides the opportunity to pursue their passion for cooking without the huge capital needed for a restaurant. The same physical limitations that make the hawker stall a cramped space to work also make it affordable. Because of their youth, many observers refer to such young hawkerpreneurs as hipster hawkers. In some cases, entire hawker centres have developed to highlight the experimental cuisines in a trendy environment. Timbre+ is one such example. It is a food centre which melds local, fusion, and international cuisines. It is a stunning sight: shipping containers covered in graffiti, stacked erratically. In place of traditional food stalls are food trucks parked inside the centre itself.

While Joey chose a traditional hawker center, other young people pursued their passion in newer places like Timbre+. This hints at the complicated interaction between young and old hawkers, and new and old hawker centers. Associate Professor Pow is with the Department of Geography at NUS. He explains that Joey is just one kind of young hipster hawker changing Singapore’s food landscape.

Professor Pow I think we need to again make some distinction. So we could be talking about a regular hawker center, right, and then there are certain stalls which are taken over by young entrepreneur hawkers. So, you know, in that sense you’re talking about the insertion of these kinds of hipster hawkers into a regular or even a old hawker center. And then there are also brand new hawker centers that are built, that has been classified at least by the Straits Times or popular media as hipster hawker centres right, like the one that you mentioned the Fareground in Pasir Ris for example. It’s different because for the first one where you are talking about hipster hawkers entering into old, well-established hawker centres. So, they might be infusing new kinds of cuisine or even giving all these hawker centers a new lease of life. So in a sense, if you’re talking about from the consumers’ point of view, that’s good right because it adds diversity, adds variety. But there is also a worry that some of these young, sometimes mid-career kind of entrepreneur hawkers might actually drive up the rental because they are usually prepared to pay a little bit more.

Raudhah Sean and Jia Xin, two of Joey’s friends, work at Timbre+, where they have transformed local classics into something completely new. Their laksa is no longer a bowl of noodles in spicy coconut broth like you find at a traditional food center like Maxwell, where Joey works. Instead, it is a cube of layered ingredients that could fit in the palm of your hand.

Sean Okay, Hi, my name is Sean.

Raudhah [Laughs] Hi Sean.

Sean Currently owner of Deli & Daint as well as Food Anatomy. I handle kitchen operations and our main core business would be either salad as well as some food cubes that we design local delights into cake-size cube shapes and it’s served hot.

Raudhah I see. How about you?

Jia Xin I am Jia Xin. [Laughter] Same as Sean, we both operate Deli & Daint and Food Anatomy together. So for the food cubes that we’re doing it’s more on the line of design, so it’s created in a way that they have different colours, different aspects of the original dish in a cube itself.

Raudhah You both had experience working in the Maxwell Food Center right? How would you compare it to working here in Timbre+?

Jia Xin Maxwell is a very tough place to be in [laughs]. Because of the environment. Long hours. Very, very hot. Not only hot but humid even under the shades. So, we had very long hours when we first started as well. At first, we didn’t have any help and it was just the two of us, doing 7-day shifts all the way from 7am to 10pm, every day without fail.

Raudhah Wow…

Jia Xin Yeah… That’s when after that, Joey came in to help us.

Raudhah According to Sean and Jia Xin, the customer base is also quite different in Timbre+ compared to at Maxwell Food Center. Customers are willing to spend more at Timbre+ since the place consists mostly of unique startups like Food Anatomy.

Raudhah Do you prefer to work in Maxwell or to work here?

Sean Well, of course here [laughter]. Right. If you say potential in business, Maxwell I think it reaches the maximum. For this place, there is still room to grow. And…

Jia Xin I think room to grow not only in terms of business sales but also as a team. The space is also much bigger here so there’s a lot of things we can try, research and develop. So we can also build like a small family over here with the staff. At Maxwell, it was like a small little stall, like we can only squeeze in two to three people at any one time, so that’s the max we can do.

Raudhah Are you all the only young hawkers in Maxwell?

Sean Last time.

Jia Xin Used to be. Slowly, the trend is that youngsters are starting to do it, like starting a business in a hawker as well.

Raudhah How about here?

Sean Here, they’re all youngsters [laughs]. A lot of youngsters here. For Jia Xin, she started at the age of 21.

Raudhah How old are you now?

Jia Xin I’m 27 this year. So for 6 years. So last time is considered the youngest [Laughter].

Raudhah Why do you think more youngsters are taking it up now?

Sean I think more of the media right now, like a lot of chef shows… Is it stuck or truck?

Jia Xin Foodstruck.

Sean “Foodstruck”, all this kind of advertisements that make youngsters want to be an owner or become a chef.

Jia Xin Because on the surface, like on TV and media all these, it looks glamorous. You get to be a business owner in a hawker. You get to break the trend. It’s no longer an uncle, auntie kind of job.

Joey I think also the entrance of the Michelin guide into Singapore also kind of pushes people to want to strive for these things as well, because now there is an accolade that might even come to even hawker centers, proven by how there are now two hawkers with Michelin stars. I guess… Well, people who start off with a limited budget or people who have a limited budget but still want to pursue this dreams will probably have to start from a hawker center because it’s quite hard to just jump into like owning a restaurant right away.

Raudhah For Sean and Jia Xin, hawker centers as a home takes on a whole new meaning. It isn’t just about the food that they cook, but the relationships they form with their team. I was amazed by the insider perspective Joey, Sean and Jia Xin offered on the hawker scene. The hawker center was a part of their lives as much as it was a part of mine, yet it holds a very different value in our eyes.

Back to my lunch at Bedok Food Center.

My family and I have bought our food and gathered back at a table near the hawker center’s atrium. This may be a public place, but it feels like our dining room at home. The main difference is everyone gets to eat what they want. We all have different preferences when it comes to food. At home, my dad loves my mum’s curry, but my brother doesn’t like it. Some days I want Chinese food, while my mum craves Malay food. At the hawker centre, this isn’t a concern. Sometimes, we have to raise our voices to be heard over the ruckus, but that’s fine I guess. Somehow, when we gather at a table and chat over our food, the background noise doesn’t matter anymore. We form our own bubble, while the bustle of the hawker centre blurs around us. This is where we would get together and share stories, just like in our very own dining room.

After having our food, we buy a few cups of sugarcane juice, and a Malay sweet called kuih. It’s for my grandparents, the reason we first visited this food center and keep returning. I remembered a few years ago, they asked us to pick up sugarcane juice and kuih for them. The request surprised us at the time, but they explained that these foods reminded them of their younger days, when such food was a common part of their lives. They just wanted a little taste of nostalgia.

Regardless of whether it’s traditional or hip, the hawker center remains the heart and soul of our nation. From every perspective, it brings about a sense of warmth that reminds us of home. When transposed into a foreign city, it gives Singaporeans abroad a chance to catch up like old friends. For others with a passion for cooking, it’s where memories of family are rekindled and relationships are forged.  For my grandparents, it offers a taste of the past. And for me, the hawker centre embodies my family’s intimate moments of huddling together around a table, never running out of good food or stories to share.

Chris Hawker centers are one of Singapore’s most distinctive features. Visitors and residents alike praise them for their variety, quality, convenience, and affordability. Whether at the scale of the neighborhood or the nation, hawker centers are institutions deeply embedded in the social and built landscape. They are a place to hang out, to meet friends and family, to grab a quick bite, and to take away a meal for a family of picky eaters. As Raudhah makes clear, they are also a way for stall owners to make a living and for young entrepreneurs to try their hand at running a restaurant.

It should come as no surprise then, that hawker centers have been a popular research topic by students in my class looking for sites associated with home. Some of my favorites have explored how Singaporeans abroad associate hawker centres with the nation as home and how hawker centers are sites of social reproduction for stall owners.

My favorite anecdote came from a third-generation stall owner who told my students about the difficulty her parents faced while raising children and running a stall. They had no choice but to use the hawker center as daycare, which she remembered this way: “I remember sleeping in front of the refrigerator during parts of the day while my mum would tie my sister to the table for her safety”. For this stall owner, now in her 30s, the hawker center is clearly more than a workplace. It’s a site that stirs childhood memories and reminds her of the sacrifices her family made in pursuit of a better life.

Hawker centres tie together Singapore’s past, present, and future. How they will adjust to the changing times remains unclear, but their centrality to everyday life and a Singaporean sense of home hints that hawker centres will continue to serve as the nation’s dining room for years to come.

Chris The heart of this episode first aired in 2018 and was written and produced by Raudhah. Stanley Chow engineered both the original and edited versions. Thanks again to Joey, Sean and Jia Xin, for sharing their experiences cooking in the trenches. Thanks also to Professor Pow and Dr. Hamzah Muzaini for their expert insights on hawker centers. Finally, thanks to Wei Ling, Kai Li, and Fangyi for the paper that inspired the original episode. 

Before we finish, I want to give a shout-out to some of our faithful listeners, including Ian in Singapore and Megan in Omaha, Nebraska. I also want to share some quick updates. Since this episode first aired, Raudhah, Stanley and Joey have all graduated from NUS. Raudhah is happily employed in the public sector, Stanley is about to move to a new job, and Joey operates a food truck in Tokyo, selling one of Singapore’s most common hawker center dishes, chicken rice. You can find some photos of his rolling workplace on our website. 

If you want to learn more about hawker centers, you can catch the National Heritage Board’s upcoming webinar series on Singapore’s hawker culture. The first session will take place on Zoom on Tuesday, 8 of January 2021 from 2 pm to 4 pm, Singapore Time. According to the National Heritage Board, the session will explore how food, people and places associated with hawker culture can play a role in promoting community identity and fostering inter-cultural understanding and appreciation in Singapore’s context.

We have posted the National Heritage Board webinar registration link on our homepage: tinyurl.com/homeonthedot You can also find that information on Facebook. Just search for Home on the Dot. As always, thank you for listening.

The entire Home on the Dot family wishes you a happy, healthy, safe, and prosperous new year. 

Published in Transcripts S3

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